Almost four months, £15m of capital expenditure and a lot of hard work later, the refurbishment of Waitrose’s Canary Wharf flagship is complete. John Ryan visited before the grand reopening

Store openings are a little like buses – none for ages and then you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to knowing which one to board and enjoy the journey.

This week and next it’s the John Lewis/Waitrose axis that is going to provoke a deal of attention. Next week, you’ll get two for the price of one as a large Waitrose opens in conjunction with the first full-line John Lewis for two years – part of Westfield Stratford.

Yet while there are many who will have been looking forward to this, a lot of attention has already been captured this week by the reopening of another Waitrose store, not far away, as the refurbishment of the grocer’s Canary Wharf store bears fruit. This store has been trading for a little over a decade and when it first opened it was rated by many as setting a new standard in the UK in terms of presentation and making you want to linger, browse even, in a supermarket setting.

Reshuffling the deck

Time moves on, however, and the retailer felt it was time for a makeover and perhaps also realised that many of its rivals had caught up with the benchmark set by the Canary Wharf paragon. The remodelling process has been fairly lengthy – the £15m conversion started on site in May, according to director of store development Diana Hunter, although the 76,000 sq ft store has only been closed in its entirety for four days during this period. Hardly surprising when you consider that this is the best performing Waitrose store and which realises £1.3m a week.  

As things stand about two-thirds of what is on show across the three floors is non-food. Yet £900,000 of the weekly £1.3m comes from food – all of which is located on the ground floor. Food has always been on this level, but now the few pieces of homewares that were on this floor have been taken upstairs, leaving the floor with the principal entrance from the mall offering solely food.

There have also been changes in the layout and arrangement of this floor. Previously, sandwiches and lunchtime snacks were at the rear. They have now been moved to the main mall entrance – which does leave you wondering a bit why this wasn’t done before.

Hunter comments: “After 10 years, you’ve got the natural refurbishment recycle and as things have gone on, there are now 4,000 shoppers visiting the store for lunch every weekday between 12 and 2. It was time to update things and to make the store more relevant to today’s shoppers.”

It’s worth remarking that while the layout of the food floor may seem curious, when it opened the design was good enough to garner a clutch of store design prizes, so perhaps things have changed and this is just a natural next step. Whatever the rights and wrongs, there are 90,000 people working in Canary Wharf, with the average worker taking just 17 minutes for lunch – so the pressure is on to offer something quick.

For those with marginally more time, there is the espresso bar directly at the front of the store inspired, unsurprisingly, by Italian espresso bars, Hunter says. And if you really want to make a meal of things there’s a steak and oyster bar at the back of this very large floor, perfect for masters of the universe intent on celebrating their latest bonus – or even just for everyday shoppers, as prices are not astral. At this end of the shop, there is also a substantial wine department with a chiller room for the more expensive vintages (you can pay up to £500 a bottle in this branch, but most of what’s on view seems to hover around the £10 mark).

Between the espresso and steak and oyster bars, the rest of the floor is home to ‘food for now’, ambient dried goods and a fine-looking deli and cheese island with a large slatted wooden canopy above it. Waitrose continues to benefit from the fact that there really are no other food retailers of scale in the underground caverns that form the shopping centres at Canary Wharf, so any changes are unlikely to have a negative effect.

Filling the space

Now head up to the first floor and the homewares fest begins. Hunter comments: “Quite a lot [of property] is rented around here, so our homewares offer is about helping people to make rented spaces their own.” Portability is also an issue, as the majority of people in the area use the public transport network to get around and carrying large items may be problematic. For this reason, white goods have been taken out of the store as the soft furnishings and kitchenwares departments on the first floor are given greater prominence.

This level also has a 74-cover cafe that follows the template established at the Waitrose food and home store in Meanwood, Leeds, but where the graphics have been enlarged, according to Hunter. Otherwise, in total the floor does bear more than a passing resemblance to a John Lewis store.

This is no accident – the two parts of JLP have worked closely on this project. Hunter says that Kim Morris, the head of store design at John Lewis had been to the store on the day of visiting (two days ahead of opening and all was organised chaos) and that she and her team had been assisting with the homewares.

Hunter’s team meanwhile had helped with the forthcoming Waitrose and John Lewis store in Stratford. The outcome is a department store in Canary Wharf that has the Waitrose label attached to it, although the fact that the bulk of the turnover comes from food goes a long way towards justifying this.      

And so to the top floor, where women’s and men’s fashions, technology, toys and sportswear have all been given space. At 18,000 sq ft, this is the smallest of the floors and Hunter says that like the level beneath it, it represents a highly edited version of what you would see in a John Lewis branch.

As this was before the grand unveiling there was still much to be done, but the combination of equipment manufacturer and shopfitter Schweitzer/Interstore, the in-house store design team and navigational signage created by Household, made this a store that impressed. Hunter confessed to being amazed by how many shoppers entering the store to buy food were unaware that there were two floors above the ground level and that much of the work had been concerned with ensuring that this ignorance was overcome.

This is a major store overhaul of a kind not often seen at the moment, but even allowing for the doldrums that retail finds itself in, it is a measure of the inherent confidence at both Waitrose and John Lewis that this project has been completed. With its near monopoly of food retailing in the area and a local population hungry for homewares, this looks set to continue as the grocer’s number one store.

Waitrose, Canary Wharf

Project completion September 8, 2011

Store size 76,000 sq ft

Cost £15m

Reason for refurb Complete overhaul required

Design In-house, Household and Interstore

Shoppfitting and equipment manaufacturing Schweitzer